Police community support officers in Devon and Cornwall should be handed more powers, unions have claimed, arguing that they were often “powerless to act decisively because of randomly imposed restrictions”.
Unison, which represents some 8,000 police community support officers (PCSOs) nationwide, said they should have access to all existing powers and called for the distinction between standard and discretionary powers to be abolished.
In a survey of 2,700 PCSOs, the union found eight out of ten (81%) said they needed additional powers to do their jobs effectively. More than half (57%) said their current powers were not enough.
It also found that the majority (80%) agreed that their role should remain focused on community engagement and tackling low-level crime and antisocial behaviour.
Ben Priestley, Unison national officer for police staff, said: “PCSOs are the eyes and ears of their communities. They obtain invaluable intelligence for officers but often find themselves powerless to act decisively because of randomly imposed restrictions over their powers.
“The Government needs to give them the powers they need to get on with the job. PCSOs should be able to search people for drugs or stolen goods, disperse groups and issue fixed-penalty fines for parking offences.
“Currently, it’s up to chief constables whether or not PCSOs have access to this list of ‘discretionary powers’.
“We want all PCSOs to have access to all the powers so they can be a more effective and reassuring presence on the street.
“Proposals to improve dispersal powers and give PCSOs the power to issue parking fines are welcome but much more needs to be done if we want PCSOs to be fully operational.”
One Unison member said: “Not being able to act in certain situations such as parking obstructions outside schools or shoplifting can make PCSOs look powerless in the eyes of the on-looking public if they are unable to deal with even relatively simple situations.”
Another added: “PCSOs provide a crucial link with local communities, targeting minor anti social behaviour offences which actually have a huge impact on communities and these are the low level incidents they see every day.
“Without PCSOs’ continued focus on these matters this link would be lost and as a result the trust and confidence the communities have in the police.”
The PCSO role was first created by former Home Secretary David Blunkett in 2002. They were quickly dubbed “plastic policemen” while critics said it was simply “policing on the cheap”.
In addition to the 20 “standard powers” of PCSOs, officer in Devon and Cornwall have 11 out of 21 “discretionary powers” including the right to detain people for 30 minutes and prevent them fleeing, and the power to disperse gangs of youths.
They can also issue fines for eight of 21 “designated” crimes including fireworks offences.
There are currently around 350 PCSOs in Devon and Cornwall and Police and Crime Commissioner has made no secret of his support for the role which is seen as crucial within overall neighbourhood policing.
However, some police officers remain deeply sceptical about PCSOs. One said: “No one is surprised that PCSOs want more powers, to make them appear indispensable, at a time when massive cuts to police budgets have put their jobs in jeopardy.”